was 28 years younger than his mentor Aeschylus, and won his first City
Dionysia drama competition (against Aeschylus himself!) at the age
of 28, in 468 B.C.E. After that, he never fell below second place in the
competition. He is credited with certain innovations in the tragic form,
including the addition of the third actor and the introduction of scene-painting.
He also shifted the dramatic focus toward interpersonal, rather than human-divine,
interaction. Interestingly enough, Oidipous tyrannos or
Oedipus the King (which he wrote at the age of 70 or so) was not
one of the plays for which he won first prize at the Dionysia.
Interestingly, Oedipus's name (Oidipous) has several
possible meanings, depending on how you break it down. Oidos means
"swollen" and pous mean "foot," so it could
be a reference to his feet, scarred from the hobbling incident when he
was a baby; then again, oida means "I know," so it could
mean "I know the foot" (sounds meaningless until you recall
that Oedipus it was who solved the riddle
of the Sphinx:
Q: What goes on four feet in the morning, on two feet
at noon, and on three feet in the evening?
A: A man.
In this context, "to know the foot" means "to know the
man": or, as the inscription at Delphi said, to know oneself).
Finally, pou means "where," so Oedipus's name could be
translated "I know where." Consider the interplay of knowledge,
feet, and location in this drama of identity.
The word tyrannos
does not have the same subjective meaning as our English word "tyrant."
It referred to a political leader who ruled somewhat like a king (basileos),
but gained his power through popularity among the masses (hoi polloi),
instead of by dynastic and/or religious "right." In Athens,
tyranny served as an intermediate stage between monarchy and democracy.
Oedipus is a tyrannos because he holds the throne of Thebes
by virtue of his achievements (saving Thebes from the Sphinx, marrying
Jocasta) rather than by heredity. Or so he thinks....
Oedipus the King is such a well-known play that in the
last 2300-odd years (since Aristotle used examples from Oedipus
to illustrate his theories about tragedy in the Poetics) some
popular misconceptions have grown up around it:
- a superstitious attachment to Aristotle's term hamartia
(flaw, failure, error; often mistranslated as "tragic flaw")
has caused generations of students to assume that Oedipus's fate
descends upon him as punishment for some moral shortcoming in his
character. In fact, it is made clear throughout the play that Oedipus
is a legitimate hero, the savior of Thebes from the Sphinx (see
below), a wise and kindly ruler. How then can we make sense of what
happens to him?
- the Aeschylus-Herodotus tradition of oracles suggests that Oedipus
should have been more careful. If he had been wise enough to interpret
the Delphic Oracle correctly, he wouldn't be in this mess. However,
Sophocles uses the oracle differently from his renowned predecessor.
His oracle does not offer Oedipus advice ("Do not do X")
or a choice ("If you do X, Y will happen"); rather, it
states categorically, "You will...." How
does Sophocles make this unconditional oracle work dramatically?